Holy Motors: Leos Carax’s Chaplin-like statement on these modern times

Still from Holy Motors. ()
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Leos Carax's Holy Motors is another 2012 film giving the 20th century and its cinema a lingering, loving, wistful goodbye kiss.

Two others were Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (a celebration of analog-era knickknacks, tools and collectibles as much as of young love) and P.T. Anderson's The Master (an intimate drama set during the Baby Boom years and stubbornly shot on one of that era's luxury formats, 70mm).

While those other two films were actually, defiantly shot on celluloid film rather than now-standard digital video, Holy Motors is Carax's first digital work. It's not a comfortable fit, but the clash is exciting. Like those two younger American directors, France's Carax seems as precocious and rebellious as when he started out 28 years ago.

What's the movie about? Well, a plot description won't tell you much, since Carax is mostly messing around with a platter of ideas and surreal sketches about performance, identity, technology, media, civilization versus barbarism, simulation, surveillance and the grinding pace of the 21st century economy.

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He makes most of his points in images of a hardworking Denis Lavant rushing to various "appointments" in a stretch limousine. At these gigs, Lavant (Carax's longtime muse) takes on different personas: father, motion-capture performer for the movies, a deranged goblin (in a grin-inducing homage to Carax's short film "Merde!"), assassin and crippled old bag lady.

Just as The Master is nearly nothing without its giant closeups of Joaquin Phoenix's drunken-velociraptor grimace, Holy Motors is built around Lavant's mesmerizing homely/handsome mug and elastic physicality. This guy was meant for the silent era but somehow ended up in our time, a Buster Keaton for discomfiting art films.

Carax will be remembered less for the discomfiture than the moments where his films go into lyrical convulsions of light and motion. Until Holy Motors, the greatest such crazy Carax sequence was the one in The Lovers on the Bridge (1991), in which two derelict lovers (Lavant and Juliet Binoche) celebrate their bond with fireworks, gunfire, classical music, Public Enemy, and nighttime water skiing at top speed.

The "motion capture" scene in Holy Motors outdoes it. Well, perhaps only if you're one of those moviegoers who despises the current worldwide trend toward meaningless gimmicks like 3D and excessive computer graphics. Lavant shows up to his appointment fully dressed in a dark body suit dotted with white orbs.  He enters a gargantuan movie studio that looks more like a coal power plant. No director or stage crew is present, just a series of crisp orders booming from loudspeakers. On a dimly lit sound stage, he lets the motion capture lasers mark the positions of his white orbs for tracking purposes, then sets to work.

What follow are a martial arts action sequence and a graphic sex scene played with no costumes or locations and only two props. The choreography is so insanely vigorous and graceful (with leaps from fast motion to oily slow motion that dazzle like Sarah Vaughan gliding between distant vocal registers) that we get it right away: Millions spent on CGI and other playthings, yet only the human form, light and a crystalline recording medium are essential for a genuine thrill. Nothing essential about cinema has changed in a century, despite all the dehumanizing "innovation" happening now. 

When Carax does reveal the film-within-a-film's CGI, it's as tacky and juvenile as a tween's tattoo, unequal to what flesh, bone and the audience's imagination have just conjured up. By contrast, Carax's simple shots of Lavant running with a machine gun and pantomiming cunnilingus are pure elegance.

Not that there are many folks left with enough attention span to grasp such distinctions, Carax seems to say. After desecrating a cemetery where the dead leave their official website urls chiseled onto the headstones, Lavant, in his goblin disguise, encounters a vapid fashion photographer on a generic Eva Mendes shoot. The shooter can only think in blurbs: When he's snapping shots of a sullen, druggy Mendes, he chants, "Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!" As he documents the goblin's rampage, he goes, "Weird! Weird! Weird!" Perfect for an age in which so much is boiled down to "awesome," "epic," "random" and "fail."

Carax's attention seems to roam everywhere as well, but only if you come to the film expecting a cohesive narrative to lend it tension and a pleasing shape rather than the director's dreamlike stream of images and sounds. As much as any Ho'wood tentpole superhero flick, Holy Motors is a series of set pieces. There's even two gorgeous musical numbers, one with an army of accordion players, another with Kylie Minogue. 

It's what it all adds up to that counts:

We're at a cultural crossroads, those of us who live in countries where iPhones and social media mean something. We're leaving behind a whole range of physical products forever, in favor of ones that exist only as data or abstractions. We're crossing these precarious bridges on faith, or just resignation to the tools set before us as we scramble to survive.

What are we losing in the transfer? In Holy Motors, glimpses of ancient Etienne-Jules Marey motion photography and still-stunning Edith Scob (star of the 1960 French classic Eyes without a Face) as Lavant's limo driver, seem to cry for continuity with the past.

Now that whole archives are trusted to "the Cloud," there's as much risk of losing it all as there is promise in the way digital media smuggle history over to the very demographic that mega-corporations prefer to remain unawares, the youth. (Go to YouTube and witness all the awed teenagers commenting under classic silent movies.)  Carax is thinking about all that stuff in Holy Motors, pitting Lavant's Lon Chaney makeup kit and costumes and absurdly luxurious limo against a world that suddenly moves faster than any vehicle, silently, invisibly, through data cables and air waves.

It only sounds new. Charlie Chaplin was just a bit younger than middle-aged Carax and Lavant are now when he took stock of industrial automation, radio and (implicitly) talking pictures in Modern Times (1936). Chaplin's newly industrious Tramp kept up a pace as relentless as Lavant's in Holy Motors, just to make a life for himself and his sweet lady. Lavant does it for similar reasons, but (with Carax being a cynical surrealist in contrast to Chaplin's sentimental melodrama) his "lady" turns out to be a thousand times more of a shock than Paulette Godard's smile. 

Chaplin's famous advice in Modern Times ("Buck up-- never say die!") jibes with Lavant's reason for hustling like a rookie actor at his advanced age, through brutally changing times. What makes him carry on is "what made me start: the beauty of the act."  There's more blood, pessimism and vulgarity in Carax's near-futuristic vision, but the two filmmakers are saying the same sweet thing.

Holy Motors is playing at Film Forum through October 30.